Chicago is home to the blues, offering a lively scene with many blues clubs and bars scattered throughout the city. Get ready for a night devoted to the blue chord progressions and blue notes that make up this music genre while visiting Buddy Guy’s Legends, on Wabash Avenue in the South Loop, for a full evening of food, drink and blues.
The blues, contrary to its name, is a joyful, celebratory music, and the true blues experience occurs when there is a call and response from the instruments and the vocals, with an additional call and response between the audience and the band.
The greatest blues players of the post-World War II period migrated from the Mississippi delta to Chicago. They electrified the delta style of playing, and created the Chicago electric blues sound. Giants of the music – Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson II, to name just a few, recorded for Chess Records at 2120 South Michigan Avenue, and reached an audience around the world.
Buddy Guy, along with B.B. King, is one of the most famous living bluesman. He came up in the Chicago scene of the 1950s. Influenced by Muddy Waters, he went on to become an international star, winning five Grammy awards and an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005. He has influenced numerous rock artists, including Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. He opened his club, Legends, in 1989, and it quickly became the world’s premier blues club.
On Fridays and Saturdays, Legends provides a free acoustic set, beginning around 6:00 p.m., to get the night going. There is no cover charge, so you can grab a table, have a drink, and listen to talented local bluesmen such as Fruteland Jackson or Diamond Jim Greene.
While you are absorbing the haunting sounds of the acoustic blues, take a look at the menu. Legends is a full service kitchen specializing in Cajun cooking, as Buddy Guy is originally from Louisiana. Start with a cup of gumbo, or the fried okra, and then for a main dish try the “legendary etouffée” or the smothered catfish. There are numerous tasty Cajun dishes to choose from, along with po-boy sandwiches, or for the less adventurous, the “damn right burger”. For dessert, try the key lime pie. The food is well prepared and tasty, and you will not go hungry. The fully stocked bar will provide a beverage to accompany your meal.
Take time to check out the club itself. Buddy Guy has hung the walls with blues memorabilia from his long career, so the place serves as a combination blues bar and museum. You will see guitars signed by all kinds of famous artists, pictures, posters, record albums, a display case containing Buddy’s Grammies and other awards, and portraits of such legendary players as Stevie Ray Vaughan, Willie Dixon, and Eric Clapton. There are also four pool tables, so if you want to get in a friendly game between sets, go right ahead.
The major acts start around nine o’clock, and there is a cover charge to see them. The format of the paying shows is an opening act, usually an excellent local group or an up and coming young performer. You won’t want to miss this set, because the openers are usually very good.
The headliner on the weekends is always a major blues talent. Everyone who’s anyone in the blues world has played here, from the late Junior Wells, to Tinsley Ellis, Elvin Bishop, Koko Taylor and many more.
When the headline band takes the stage and strikes up the first notes is a thrill like no other, for you are hearing the very best musicians playing in an intimate club setting, with excellent acoustics and an enthusiastic crowd shouting encouragement. The artists know that they are playing on the best blues stage in Chicago, so they put something extra into their performance.
The headline band plays a first set until about midnight, and then comes back for a second set that runs to about 2 a.m. It’s that second set, after midnight, when the band is loose – and so is the audience – that’s when the blues, as the song says, “come tumbling down”.
It is a magical musical time that is not to be missed. True blues is a communal experience between musicians and audience, where everyone in the room reaches the same emotional peak during the guitar solos and the vocals. Cries of “Play the blues!” and “have mercy!” rise from the audience as the musicians, bathed in sweat, crank up the music that one extra notch in intensity to please the crowd.
As you leave Buddy Guy’s club in the early morning hours, the sounds of the blues still ringing in your ears, you will take with you the feeling of the music – the warm feeling of people enjoying this exuberant music together – and you won’t be able to help but smile. And you will want to come back the next time you are in town.
What and Where:
Buddy Guy’s Legends (754 S. Wabash; 312-427-0333)
Michael Norris is a freelance writer who is just back from four years in Paris, and is now living in Evanston, IL. He has had articles published in The Paris Times, Literary Kicks, Live Life Travel, as well as other on-line travel sites. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org